190203 pope francis in abu dhabi
Pope Francis waves as he boards a plane at Fiumicino airport on his way to a three-day visit to the UAE. His visit is taking place early in the Year of Tolerance. Image Credit: AFP

Abu Dhabi, the capital, is just about an hour away by car from Dubai, my home for the last 17 years.

By all means, I groaned within, grab this rare chance to hear mass to be officiated by the pope himself.

I was born, raised Catholic in one of the Philippine islands. At about the age of 7, I had befriended a Moro, a Muslim Filipino, on a ship that took our family to Mindanao from Luzon.

He was a kind man.

That encounter taught me early in life: We, the people who share Abraham's faith, could share the same boat and arrive safely at our chosen destination.

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Those thoughts were long buried in my memory. It took this visit by the leader of my own faith for me to realise: As a Christian living in the UAE, a Muslim country, I encounter the same acts of kindness on a daily basis here.

My Emirati hosts are polite, driven, hardworking. Their sense of positivity, their ability to dream big, is infectious.

The brand of leadership, the welcome Emiratis extend to the millions of expatriates who live here, is providential.

This visit also brings back memories of 1995, when John Paul II drew 6 million attendees to the mass he officiated during his second and last visit to my country.

Institution of tolerance

I consider myself a pilgrim in the UAE. The country's institutions, its culture of tolerance, as well as the courage and moral leadership in confronting the voices of division and destruction have always fascinated me.

My wife Tweet and I met at the Singles for Christ group in Dubai's St. Mary's Catholic Church, built more than 50 years ago on land donated by the Ruler, the late Shaikh Rashid.

We got married in 2007. Here, we learnt about a tour operator arranging visits to the Vatican and Holy Land, both of which we saved up for, and took when we finally had the chance.

Between 2008 and 2013, we were blessed in the UAE with three boys — Tobit Francis, Pietro Benedict and Topher Claren — names that all bear our affinity to the Church.

Today, I think about the significance of Pope Francis’ visit to the UAE: The warm welcome given by leaders and the people, the dialogue between religious leaders hosted by Abu Dhabi, the blessings that God has bestowed upon this land.

It’s almost unbelievable: For the first time ever, a pontiff, the “bridge builder” and successor to Peter, the prime among Jesus’ apostles, has set foot on the Arabian Peninsula — and at this time of the year.

"It'll be a brief trip," the Pope told journalists. "They told me it's raining in Abu Dhabi. This, in some places, is seen as a blessing. Let's hope it goes this way."

The great anticipation is palpable: From official pronouncements, vigorously covered by the local media, to stories of ordinary people preparing for the once-in-a-lifetime experience.

I sorely want to be a part of that experience, too; even if, this time, as a detached, objective journalist.

In the run-up to this three-day visit, I’ve seen the build-up of excitement, the festive, almost electric kind.

It makes me wonder: Why is this happening in the UAE at this time?

But why not?

The years I have stayed and worked in the UAE have never really jaded my sense of wonderment — about how the country has constantly changed, yet remained the same.

I’m still fascinated by this United Arab Emirates, and how it marks 2019 as the Year of Tolerance. Where else in the world can you find a government with a dedicated Minister of Tolerance?

I also wonder about what the pope might think or say in his homily … the gospel on Tuesday is about Jesus’ healing touch. Surely, each of us needs healing.


So just a few takeaways from the Pope’s visit, and what means to me:

The UAE is a land of peace, opportunity, solidarity with the world's neediest — including the millions of toddlers once threatened by polio, crippled for life.

The UAE welcomes different tribes and tongues to its shores, where more than 200 nationalities live in harmony in these parts.

Many people from other nations like me planned to stay here for a few years; but ended up spending almost a lifetime.

The Pope’s visit is a natural extension of the generosity of the country, the world’s top donor per capita GDP for many years.

The UAE is a land known for its world-class governance, positivity, innovation (where there's an app for almost anything) and tolerance. In Catholic masses in churches across the UAE, the "Prayer of Faithful" always include petitions for protection, wisdom and benevolence for the Rulers of the country.

And it's indeed a land of benevolence — pardoning prisoners by the thousands on a regular basis, including some people I knew and had visited in jail and were later pardoned — a model in every sense not only for the Middle East, but for the rest of the world.

I can’t think of a better way, in dealing with offenders, to striking a balance between the need for correction and putting humanity into practice.

Rain is quite rare in the Arabian Peninsula. On Tuesday, weathermen said there’s a good chance of showers.

And weather permitting, the Pope's Mass in Abu Dhabi will be a blessing for me. I am a sinner, and need God's ocean of mercy.

Let the rain wash away my iniquities.

This visit affirms my belief that the UAE is indeed a land of barakat, countless blessings.

I feel that the Pope himself will be blessed by what he would see, feel and experience, just as surely as he will bless the people who welcome him in this land of Zayed, and the children of Zayed.

We're all pilgrims here on Earth. In the same celestial vessel, we sail on a journey towards a common destiny: finding joy in our shared humanity.

Energised by the hoped-for civilisation of love and mercy.

Here below and for all eternity.

God bless the Pope. God bless the UAE.